On Colonialism: A Response to Nigel Biggar’s Reply

Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page) by , licensed as Creative Commons BY (2.0).

The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History has recently published my Extended Critique of Nigel Biggar’s book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning. Prof. Biggar’s Reply was published alongside it.

Like his history of colonialism, Biggar’s reply has unorthodox features, some of which I will engage with, others I will not.

Balance: Page 276

Prof Biggar seeks to respond to each of my nine examples of his misuse of data. He does not explain why his errors, some of which he admits to, others not, all tend in the same direction: towards the justification and mitigation of colonialism’s violence and racism. He complains that my article fails to reflect his balanced approach to colonialism, noting that he is “candid about the evils and injustices of the Empire and provide[s] a summary on page 276”. Later, he claims that I “need only to have read 276 to find a summary of the different kinds of evil and injustice for which I hold British imperialists and colonialist either responsible or culpable”. This page would have to be very weighty to balance the other 428 pages of substantive text and footnotes generally justifying colonialism. Yet, p. 276 seems to be aimed at providing mitigation rather than analysis. We are instructed that, for all its faults, the British Empire was not as bad as Nazi Germany’s death camps or the Soviet Union’s Gulags.

The weighty page 276


Readers will judge for themselves whether the claim that Africans lack compassion compared to Europeans is not racist, as long as it is environmental rather than biological determinism that underpins that claim. In his response Biggar doubles down on his claim that only biological determinism counts as racism: “it is perfectly possible to regard certain current features of another person’s culture as inferior in certain respects, and still to accord that person a basic human respect, which includes the view that he or she has the same human potential to learn and grow as anyone else. Such an attitude, in my view, is not racist.” Let me quote from Stuart Hall on the relationship between biological and cultural racism: “so called biological racism has never been separated from cultural inferiorisation. Blackness always functioned as a sign that people of African decent are (a) closer to nature and therefore (b) more likely for that reason to be lazy, indolent, lacking in higher intellectual faculties, driven by emotion 8 not reason, oversexualised, prone to violence, etc, etc… The two logics have always been intertwined, ever since the beginning … There has never been one or other of these logics in the structure of social exclusion. It is of course true that in different historical contexts one or other of these two logics (biological racism or cultural inferiorisation) has often been foregrounded and this has had different effects in different historical communities. Leading to the necessity of our now speaking of racisms in the plural and bringing biological racism and cultural inferiorisation together in an expanded conception of what racialisation is about in the modern world”.

Political Positioning

Biggar has completely ignored the statement of my own political position and done exactly what I sought to guard against when including it: allege that I am driven as much by Left wing politics in my approach to history as he is by his Right wing views. He makes no effort to refute my analysis of his own political motivations. To suggest, without any basis whatsoever, that my longstanding professional involvement in colonial history is as politically driven as his own, which he admits dates only from his political decision to resist the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, is simply a deflection from the analysis of his book.

Culture Warrior or Colonial Analyst?

Nothing proves Biggar’s immersion in the tactics of the culture war, over and above any interest in debating colonialism, better than his second deflection. This is to the unrelated controversy concerning Prof Kathleen Stock.

In my review article, I located Biggar in a culture war context because it determines entirely his book’s approach to colonial history. Biggar chooses not to reject that association but rather to attempt ‘retaliation’ against the reviewer. He seeks to connect me to a different ‘front’ in the culture war – one which has nothing to do with the book’s purported subject or my comments on it.

His only reasoning for a connection is that fact that Prof Stock and I worked at the same university. It seems hypocritical of Biggar to then rail against another historian for apparently associating him with Thomas Carlyle based on their birthplaces and with Richard Dearlove based on their shared school. In attempting tit-for-tat rather than refuting the point I was making, Biggar only demonstrates that it is indeed political contestation rather than scholarly debate that drives his intervention.

Victor Orbán

Having first tried to smear me by association with the activists who sought Prof Stock’s dismissal, Biggar asks “What does the fact that Viktor Orbán was interviewed as an inspirational figure during the 2020 National Conservatism conference in the U.S. say about me? Nothing at all. So why report it?” The answer is obvious. With many conferences one would not expect any political alignment between participants. The National Conservatism conference is not just any conference. As has been widely reported, it is sponsored by the Trump-aligned far right in the USA and it exists to propagate its political ideology of National Conservatism. All of its speakers are chosen because they align with that shared political doctrine. Furthermore, Biggar is linked directly with Orbán’s government. He was a keynote speaker at the Brussels launch of Orbán’s Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), a body created to ‘educate’ (one might argue, indoctrinate) the next generation of Hungarians with exclusive nationalist ideology. Its chair of trustees is Orbán’s brother, Dr Balázs Orbán. I drew attention to Biggar’s association with the National Conservative movement because its political doctrine determines his arguments in the book.

Whereas I associate Biggar with the doctrines that drive his analysis of colonialism; he tries to associate me with all sorts of things that have nothing to do with that phenomenon, and with no evidence for any association in the first place.

Prof Biggar’s Contribution to the Launch of the Orbán government’s National Conservative ‘educational’ project

Straw Men

Biggar complains about my and Jon Wilson’s observation that he constructs “anticolonial” straw men against whom to argue. Again he slants his defence towards the ad hominem, suggesting that this might be because we are “miffed” that he has not paid attention to our own work. “If so”, he continues, “the reason is simple: the likes of Hilary Beckles, Dan Hicks, and Caroline Elkins have far more influence on the wider, public world than they do.”

However, Biggar’s book does not just condemn any supposed excesses of these more popular historians. It is a history of empire of its own, upon which Biggar then casts moral judgement. In constructing that history, he ignores not just the work of Jon Wilson and myself, but an enormous scholarship on that empire in general, produced by hundreds of colleagues around the world. This is poor scholarly practice in any discipline. The only explanation that I can offer is that this scholarship includes insights of an empirical nature that cannot simply be dismissed as politically motivated, but which do not accord with Biggar’s political preferences.

Tasmanian Genocide

On the Tasmanian genocide, Biggar succeeds in reinforcing my point. He states that “historians such as Henry Reynolds and Dirk Moses reject [the use of the concept of ‘genocide’ to describe what happened in Tasmania in the 1820s-30s] for the same reasons I do … If there is some particular text that would add an important philosophical or legal contribution to my discussion of genocide, Professor Lester does not identify it.” I would be happy to supply Biggar with a reading list but my first suggestion is that he read in full the sources that he already cites.

While he complicates the use of the word “genocide”, Dirk Moses does not reject the concept in Tasmania at all. Rather he identifies “genocidal processes” there, but also and more particularly in Queensland, which Biggar ignores along with most other violent colonial frontiers. Dirk Moses tells me that the claim of Biggar’s that he is in agreement with his work is “totally disingenuous”. Moses arranged the publication of Raphael Lemkin’s unpublished essay on genocide in Tasmania precisely to show how the concept applied there. Lemkin was the originator of the legal concept of genocide. Biggar could also profit from reading the full article by Ann Curthoys, which he again cites without apparently being familiar with its contents. As I pointed out, Curthoys concludes clearly that genocide applies to Tasmania.


Prof. Biggar complains that I have nothing positive to say about his book. This is correct. I have published reviews of over 40 academic books on colonialism. I have had analytical points of difference with some of their authors, but I have always made a point of emphasising the things that we can learn from reading their analyses. Even if their interpretations differed wildly, all of these scholars were intent on understanding and explaining the actors and actions involved in colonialism. They developed and adapted their arguments in response to a wide range of primary and secondary sources. None was driven from the start to tell a highly selective story purely in the interests of a contemporary political project.

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One comment on “On Colonialism: A Response to Nigel Biggar’s Reply
  1. Peter John Robertson says:

    Uncited in Nigel Biggar’s “Colonialism: a Moral Reckoning”. there is more wisdom and truth contained in Desmond Tutu’s famous comment on colonialism –“When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray’. We closed our eyes and when we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land”– than in all 480 pages of Biggar’s self-regarding and self-justifying magnum opus.

    A cursory look into the index of “Colonialism” reveals other glaring gaps. No mention of British-Canadian anthropologist Ronald Wright’s “Stolen Continents” and other writings. No mention of the now infamous “residential schools” in Canada, an abomination instituted to “take the Indian out of fhe child ” by Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. Nor any mention in the bibliography of Edward W. Said’s “Culture and Imperialism”.

    Such glaring omissions make Biggar’s book suspect right off the bat.

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